It’s Freedom Day! How Much Will Boris Bounce?


Freedom day in England begins not with the celebratory bang first promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson but a whimper — or rather, the sound of a ping from the National Health Service app warning us to isolate ourselves because we have come into contact with someone infected with Covid-19.

Businesses complain they are losing vital workers to the dreaded “Pingdemic.”  If it looks like just another tech anomaly or irritation, it has real consequences. Hundreds of workers at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland have been forced to self-isolate, disrupting production of electric vehicles. Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister (not an out-there libertarian by any means), intervened at the weekend, calling for a more nuanced approach to test and trace to allow businesses to keep working, while taking sensible precautions.

The sense of inchoate muddle is, once again besetting government after the fast roll-out of the mass vaccination program.The delta variant of Covid does bring new challenges and the threat of more hospitalizations. But it is also a test case of the trade-offs that Johnson needs to face up to more clearly in managing the pandemic.

This weekend marked one of the fastest about faces on record at Westminster, as the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive. The initial word from Downing Street was that his senior Cabinet colleagues — Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak — would continue to work as normal, aided by a pilot scheme that allows essential workers to be tested daily. It did not take long for Number 10 to realize that this sounded too much like the opposition Labour party’s favorite attack line: “One rule for them, another for us.” Now, Johnson and Sunak will self-isolate. That is an unfortunate start to a week that begins with Freedom Day.

Voters favor caution as a general principle. But public opinion is more nuanced than the raw numbers suggest. Millions of otherwise law-abiding parents are enraged that their children have been sent home from school to isolate again, before the school term ends, effectively taking them out of education for months on end and adding to childcare burdens. University students too are disenchanted by the often sub-standard schooling they are receiving in lockdown for the same tuition fees.

Businesses cannot exist in limbo forever: A trip even 50 miles outside London shows small towns shuttering more shops and restaurant reopenings delayed or cancelled. Service industries are on the rack. High Street shops are closing and vacancies rising as positions remain unfilled by workers on state furlough from jobs that may no longer exist when all this ends. To add to the mess, promises of a return of foreign holidays look shaky. This weekend, France — the favored destination for middle-class Britons — was abruptly subject to more stringent quarantining on return.

No question, there is a political underside to this turmoil that fuels discontent with the test and trace system and is boosting the impression of clumsy, interfering and paradoxical government. Once bullish about reopening the country and ending all social distancing restrictions — the British must “learn to live with Covid,” the prime minister stated only last month — Johnson has also been infected by second thoughts about how this will all pan out. These days “bouncing Boris” sounds like a nervous umpire in the raging battle between libertarians and lock-downers.

Likened by a former strategist to a supermarket trolley with wonky wheels that lurches randomly across the aisle, Johnson must steer a steady middle course, offering more consistency and clarity. But crucially, he can no longer dither: Trade-offs, a good year after the lockdowns began, are becoming sharper. Yes, Johnson needs flexibility. If the facts or the data change, he can change with them. The country has already shown high tolerance for Johnson’s mistakes and foibles. Yet under his leadership — deemed disastrous by critics — the Tories maintain a steady poll lead.

More than half the adult population is double vaccinated but it isn’t clear when the country should fully reopen at all. The costs of never-ending lockdown-lite are mounting in human and economic terms.

This could get worse rather fast for Johnson. He could be forced to order new lockdown curbs within five weeks, Chris Whitty, his chief medical officer warned last week. “Scary” growth in hospitalizations could leave the NHS “in trouble again surprisingly fast” once restrictions are lifted. Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, calls the removal of restrictions “reckless.”

The messaging on the proposed return of millions of workers to the office is chaotic. “We’re removing the instruction to work from home where you can,” Johnson said last week, “but we don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desk as from Monday.” On that basis, your writer has little idea of where his next column will be written from — and journalists are hardly the most affected of workers.

In truth, many people are now switching off their warning apps and no longer heeding much top-down advice. Two-thirds of Britons say they will wear masks after restrictions are lifted anyway. The other third — usually young men — can already be observed with them at half-mast, or not at all, on public transport under existing restrictions. So no change there.

Tugging the prime minister in the other direction are the substantial Tory-supporting press as well as a large section of ordinary folk who, to quote my physiotherapist 60 miles outside London, are “just effing sick of all of this.” The sentiment is symptomatic of a widespread and growing frustration.

These are the hidden drivers of the “opening up”  push that begins today. It would be rash to say it does not have risks. But it would be unrealistic not to understand why Johnson has made the move. Travel outside the ebullient capital and the impact of closing down is just as clear. Metropolitan, liberal London does not get this — but it remains true and Johnson hears the message.

Politically, he is still in the driving seat as the parliamentary recess approaches. Unless there is clear evidence that the virus is overwhelming the NHS with admissions of hospital patients, Johnson will avoid depending on Labour votes to push through legislation. And counseling caution always underweights the ongoing damage to the economy of retreating from normal activity.

For all the parodies of his leadership, Johnson is not really an outrageous libertarian; nor is he comfortable in the role of the nation’s jailer. He needs to join a new and growing third-way — the “utilitarian” movement, prepared to accept some risks (against a background of a high rate of double vaccination) for keeping more of the country open, balanced by the retention of sensible precautions like mask-wearing in the workplaces.

As Blair, a pragmatic former holder of the office puts it, there is no definite end in sight to our Covid slog. But that demands clearer, more reasoned choices from Johnson, not a changing menu of zig-zags and reversals.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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